Cubs

Cubs clinching party delayed until Friday after loss to Brewers

Cubs clinching party delayed until Friday after loss to Brewers

The Cubs will have to wait a little longer for an inevitable party to celebrate winning the National League Central. Specifically, they'll celebrate that achievement Friday after clinching the franchise's first division title since 2008 despite losing to the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday. 

Scooter Gennett’s go-ahead two-run double in the seventh proved to be the difference as the Cubs lost, 5-4, to the Brewers in front of 41,362 fans at Wrigley Field hoping to revel in a win to move the team's magic number to zero. But the clinching moment happened to be far more anticlimactic, coming when the St. Louis Cardinals lost, 6-2, to the San Francisco Giants just before midnight Thursday. 

Players decided before the game to go home and not wait around for the Cardinals-Giants result in the event they didn’t beat Milwaukee. The celebration will now take place following Friday's day game against Milwaukee. 

Early on, it looked like the Cubs would be able to get a party going and, when it would be time to party, party hard Thursday night. Manager Joe Maddon didn’t think his team, on the verge of clinching a division title, looked anxious coming into the evening. 

“I’ll use the word eager,” Maddon said. “I think that’s a good word. I think that’s better than anxious. I thought we had a really good way about us today and again we made a couple mistakes that we normally don’t make, but it’s just going to happen.” 

Jorge Soler smashed a two-run home run in the second inning, pausing a bit to admire his work as the ball whistled into the left field bleachers. But the Cubs weren’t able to cruise through the evening against their fourth-place divisional counterparts thanks to a rare error by shortstop Addison Russell, which sparked a fourth-inning Brewers rally.

With two out in the inning — and after Brewers center fielder Keon Broxton launched a solo home run to center — Russell, on a ground ball off the bat of third baseman Hernan Perez, threw up the line toward first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who couldn’t catch the ball. Perez reached, and Domingo Santana and Oswaldo Arcia followed with back-to-back doubles to bring home a pair of runs to put Milwaukee ahead.

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Montgomery, who struck out seven over six innings, thought he pitched well outside of the mistake that Arcia hit for that two-run double. 

“I felt good,” Montgomery said. “I’d like to have that fourth inning back but I thought I made a lot of good pitches.” 

But the Cubs quickly equalized thanks to an unlikely source in Montgomery. With two out and Jason Heyward on third, Montgomery grounded a fastball on the outer third of the plate into center for his first career hit and an RBI single. 

Montgomery threw six innings, his highest total since being traded to the Cubs from the Seattle Mariners in July, and mixed his pitches well. His curveball, which Maddon described as a “premium” pitch was highly effective — Montgomery threw 28 curveballs, 22 of which were strikes, 17 of which swung at and eight of which generated swings and misses, according to BrooksBaseball.net. 

“He threw the ball well,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “I think it was just one bad pitch, just one bad pitch — hit the double and scored the two runs, but other than that he threw the ball really well. He struck out seven guys and he was pretty good. He was sharp.”

Milwaukee re-took the lead in the top of the seventh when pinch-hitter Gennett flipped a double down the left field line to bring in a pair of runs off Cubs right-hander Justin Grimm. 

The Cubs couldn’t mount a late comeback, though, despite Jason Heyward’s two-out RBI double off Brewers right-hander Tyler Thornburg in the eighth. With the tying run on third and the go-ahead run on first, pinch-hitter Willson Contreras struck out looking on an inside curveball to end the inning. 

Dexter Fowler struck out, Kris Bryant grounded out and after Rizzo walked, Ben Zobrist grounded out to end the game. 

“We made a couple mistakes here and there and it cost up a couple runs,” Montero said. “I thought we played a good game and we just gotta come back tomorrow and finish them.”

Thanks to the Cardinals-Giants result, though, the Cubs no longer have any finishing to do in the NL Central. 

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

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USA TODAY

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.